Florida Museum of Natural History

Artist-Naturalists in Florida

by Charlotte M. Porter

Audubon's critique of Bartram's Travels


Thomas Say by Charles Willson Peale (Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia)

Philadelphia naturalists contemporary with Audubon also avoided the Romantic expressions of their predecessors, but unlike Audubon they never doubted the compatibility of Romantic and scientific viewpoints in the works of Bartram and Wilson. They continued to cite those authors and to trust their descriptions. One of Bantram's most striking passages, for example, described a bird he called the wood ibis.38 Nuttall quoted a slightly modified version of this description as late as 1834: "Here, alone the feathered hermit stands listless, on the topmost limb of some tall and decayed cypress, with his neck drawn in upon his shoulders, and his enormous bill resting like a scythe upon his breast."39

Audubon questioned every aspect of this description and concluded that Bartram had been mistaken in his identification. Bartram 's wood ibis, Audubon decided, was actually the brown pelican, also a water bird wit hi a large pouched bill.40 Yet, however severely Audubon criticized Bartram's "flowery savings," he, too, like Wordsworth, was susceptible to the compelling image of the "cypress and her spire." In his original watercolor study, Audubon drew the brown pelican alone and perched with its neck drawn in and its enormous beak resting upon its breast.41 Only later for the published illustration did assistant George Lehman add mangrove foliage to soften the otherwise gothic view."42

Audubon was perhaps the greatest and also the last American naturalist in the early nineteenth-century tradition of artist-naturalist.43 By l836, the year Nutall returned from hit last expedition, the American scene had changed and so had natural history. Although their books continued to be read and enjoyed, Bartram and Wilson were no longer models for science, and Philadelphia was no longer the center for American natural history.44


38. Bartram, Travels, 150.

39. Thomas Nuttall, A Popular Handbook of the Ornithology of Eastern North America, ed. Montague Chamberlain, 2 vols. (Boston, 1896), II, 111.

40. J. J. Audubon to Lucy Audubon, December 7, 1831 in Proby, Audubon in Florida, 19.

41. See Marshall B. Davidson, The Original Water-Color Paintings by John James Audubon for the Birds of America, 2 vols. (New York, 1966), II, plate 349.

42. John J. Audubon, The Birds of America, 4 vols. (London, 1827- 1838), III, plate 251. See also his Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America. 5 vols. (Edinburgh. 1831-1839), III, 95. Audubon's manuscript for the brown pelican, Pelicanus Fuscus, is in the Audubon Collection, American Museum of Natural History.

43. See Robert H. Walker, Birds and Men: American Birds in Science, Art, Literature, and Conservation, 1800-1900 (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), 59-70.

44. See Gerstner, "The Academy," 188-189, and also Nathan Reingold, "Definitions and Speculations: The Professionalization of Science in America in the Nineteenth Century," in Oleson and Brown, The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic, 53-55.

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